Although it’s sometimes difficult to determine what constitutes a “breakdown” in metal (especially if people are being pedantic while discussing it), the term typically refers to a slower instrumental passage meant to shake things up or build anticipation between the core parts of a composition.
They’re usually among the angriest section(s) of the track, yet they can also be a beautiful way to offer relief from the surrounding anarchy. That’s not to say that they can’t be heavy as well, but rather that they’re relatively pleasant.
READ MORE: 10 Sickest Breakdowns of All Time
The 10 breakdowns are this list are particularly good examples of that.
Sure, a few of them may break away from conventions, yet all of them take their respective songs into more leisurely and pretty territories before returning to the fiercer foundations.
“Master’s Apprentices,” Opeth
It's kind of ironic – but also fitting – that one of the most relentlessly brutal Opeth tunes (taken from 2002’s Deliverance) features one of their most gorgeous bypasses.
Produced and partially sung by Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, it comes about six-and-a-half minutes into the journey (after frontman Mikael Åkerfeldt cleanly sings, “Once I'm below, there's no turning back”). Suddenly, a relaxed beat and acoustic strums complement Åkerfeldt and Wilson’s angelic harmonies. Cleverly, there’s even an instant of silence that kicks off a modulation of that movement, and before long, the guttural instrumental and vocals (“Plunging into the deepest void/Departed shell left drained behind”) return in all their demonic glory.
“Melting City,” Between the Buried and Me
This piece – from BTBAM’s 2012 opus, The Parallax II: Future Sequence – has a few wonderful interruptions across its 10-minute duration. However, we’re going with the transition just past the three-minute mark, when a quick acoustic riff kicks off a vibrantly serene blend of off-kilter syncopation, mellow bass notes, soaring guitar lines and of course, cosmically cascading woodwinds (courtesy of Trioscapes’ Walter Fancourt).
It happens again shortly thereafter (bookending Tommy Rogers decreeing, “A valley of smiling despair/Self-doubt would be my first guess”), and despite the quirkier segment near the end being a close runner-up, it’s not nearly as tranquil.
“Signs of Discontent,” Candiria
Fusing hardcore punk, funk, jazz, hip-hop and other styles, Candiria is a widely eclectic band. They’re also masters of engrossing breakdowns, with their most stunning appearing within “Signs of Discontent.”
The first two-thirds of the track is consistently aggressive, so the subsequent deviation is more attractive by contrast. True, it only lasts about 30 seconds, yet its mix of repetitiously spacey guitar patterns and irregularly gentle percussion results in a significantly soothing section all the same.
Honestly, it's one of the best parts of 2001’s 300 Percent Density, proving that sometimes it’s the simplest arrangements that yield the loveliest moments.
The centerpiece of Gojira’s third studio LP (2005’s From Mars to Sirius), “Flying Whales” begins with peaceful emotional grooves around the periodic cries of the titular mammals. Eventually, though, the sundry French quartet segue into a more hellish tech death environment (complete with blast beats, razor-sharp guitar chords and scratchy screaming).
All of it crescendos into a handsomely catastrophic changeup a little over the halfway mark, wherein things slow down so that their apocalyptic guitarwork can enhance vocalist Joe Duplantier‘s pained revelation (“Now I can see the whales / Looming out of the dark/Like arrows in the sky / I can't believe my eyes”).
“The Silent Life,” Rivers of Nihil
It's the most overwhelmingly ferocious entry on this list – as would be just about all of 2018’s Where Owls Know My Name – so the midpoint breather is especially comforting. After Jake Dieffenbach roars, “I hope that you remember,” the song becomes very easygoing, with atmospheric keys supporting mournfully bluesy guitar licks and saxophone counterpoints. Seconds later, it evolves into an impassioned amalgamation of tight syncopation, dramatic riffs and tasteful saxophone and guitar solos.
It's still involving and intense enough to lend itself to headbanging, and it's a big reason why “The Silent Life” is among Rivers of Nihil’s finest compositions.
“Master of Puppets,” Metallica
You knew this song would be here, and you know the exact moment we’re talking about.
After all, the initial half or so is pure thrash perfection in every way (instrumentally, rhythmically, vocally and even lyrically). Thus, the seamless switch into dreamily reflective clean guitar arpeggios, dual electric guitar solos and descending melodies, reserved drumming and even faint violin effects is – pardon the pun – masterfully exquisite.
Beyond being a harmonious intersection in and of itself, this part of Master of Puppets foreshadowed the complex direction of 1988’s …And Justice for All and paved the way for countless progressive/folk metal proteges.
There’s no disputing the fact that enigmatic ensemble Sleep Token are immensely popular and certainly worth knowing. Above all else, they do a superb job of offsetting substantial heaviness with delightfully ethereal underpinnings, as showcased by the ending of this lead single from 2021’s This Place Will Become Your Tomb.
After the closing chorus, the arrangement dissipates into haunting tones prior to an influx of djent riffs and rhythms in conjunction with angelic backing harmonies. Not only is it an awe-inspiring passage unto itself, but it encapsulates all of the misery that leads up to it.
“Precious Stones,” Mastodon
Say what you will about 2017’s Emperor of Sand, but it undoubtedly houses at least one of the foursome’s greatest diversions ever at the center of “Precious Stones.”
Despite being gruff and fast, the track is already majorly mellow and charming; that said, the passage following Troy Sanders shouting, “Don't waste your time / If it's the last thing that you do” is truly blissful. Basically, the band launches into a downright hypnotic and dense combination of emotional guitarwork and cathartic rhythms reminiscent of the technical tranquilities that elevated 2009’s Crack the Skye.
Mastodon have rarely, if ever, sounded tighter and prettier.
In a way, TesseracT is like the fragile and spacey alternative to Periphery, representing djent at its most poignant and placating. As such, there are dozens of breakdowns that could’ve taken this spot, yet it’s hard to argue that any surpass the thoroughly moving “Tourniquet” from 2015’s Polaris.
Specifically, the closing segment is a heavenly coda led by Amos Williams’ desolately bouncy bass lines and Jay Postones’ grippingly jagged percussion. Moody ambiance floats beneath them, and eventually, biting guitar chords amplify the somber forcefulness, cementing the grief-stricken allure of the finale. It’s practically impossible not to get lost in it.
“Je Suis D’Ailleurs,” Alcest
Alcest have always been exceptional at highlighting the inherent beauty of blackgaze, be it through their earliest works or the out-and-out divine splendor of their 2014 stylistic detour, Shelter. Naturally, their 2016 follow-up – Kodama – is no exception, particularly in the case of “Je Suis D’Ailleurs” (“I Am from Elsewhere”).
About four-and-a-half minutes in, a touchingly downtrodden guitar progression – alongside steady drumming – decorates frontman Neige’s scream. Moments later, he adds delicate tremolo picking (that kind of sounds like it’s underwater) to heighten the level of solemn dissonance before things calm down and then resolve into the preceding turmoil. It’s wonderfully harrowing.
This cut comes from the Emperor frontman’s second LP – 2008’s angL – and demonstrates his adeptness at composing gorgeous musical sidesteps. Sure, the acoustic breaks between the verses are lovely, but what’s even more idyllic is the piano break that spawns from one of them during the middle of the experience.
Gothic piano chords wash over an intricate bass pattern as Ihsahn richly sings a few characteristic poeticisms (“As the sun returns/From the shades of night”). It’s already quite theatrical, yet the sudden outburst of symphonic synths, thrilling syncopation, playful keys and multilayered domineering guitarwork takes it to a new level.
"Eternal Blue," Spiritbox
The title track from Spiritbox’s debut LP – which we deservingly named our 2021 Album of the Year – “Eternal Blue” is a beautiful track from the jump, with celestial soundscapes garnishing singer Courtney LaPlante’s distressed voice and lyrics.
Between her final two verses, the band cleverly initiate a thirty-second respite with oscillating guitar chords. From there, we get a recurring onslaught of sinister riffs, abrasive syncopation, distantly wailing textures and (halfway through), a comparatively simple but impactful piercing guitar line that punctuates the surrounding heartache.
It’s a mesmerizing moment in what’s already one of Spiritbox’s most arrestingly affective and dynamic compositions.